Sunday, June 6, 2010

Two Obscure Bing Crosby Albums from the 1960s

It is only fitting to start this website that takes a look back at the greatest names in vintage pop and jazz with a post about Bing Crosby, the king of the crooners, and in my opinion, one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. A 2001 Collectors' Choice release (currently out of print, unfortunately) that pairs two lesser-known albums in Der Bingle's catalog gives me a good chance to review some delightful performances that have not garnered too much critical attention.

By the mid-1950s, Bing Crosby had ended his long-time association with Decca and had begun to record for several different labels. One of his first freelance efforts was a set of twelve swinging, brassy arrangements by Buddy Bregman cut for Verve in 1956 and issued as Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings. This was possibly a reaction to Frank Sinatra's success at producing excellent concept albums for Capitol using top arrangers such as Nelson Riddle and Billy May, but it also came from a man who had done just about all there was to do in popular music, who had been the model for popular singing for over two decades. Crosby was, as Will Friedwald puts it in his liner notes for the CD release of the album Bing with a Beat (1957), a Dixieland-styled LP in which he was accompanied by Bob Scobey's Frisco Jazz Band, "the ultimate everyman in American music." The set with Bregman was produced by the renowned Norman Granz, while the producer of the Dixieland session with Scobey was Matty Matlock. Both were superb albums, spotlighting Bing's ability to swing and jazz up a song, and they remain two of the most satisfying records of his career.

The quality of Bing's recordings was kept high as he entered the 1960s, and a very interesting duet album with Louis Armstrong for MGM, Bing & Satchmo, is ample proof of that. Both released in 1965, That Travelin' Two-Beat and Sings the Great Country Hits are two of Crosby's best issues of the decade. On That Travelin' Two-Beat, he is paired with his good friend Rosemary Clooney in a reenactment of Fancy Meeting You Here, a highly acclaimed work of a similar kind released in 1958 on RCA. This time, as the back cover of the record states, Bing and Rosie are found swinging through a set of "favorite songs from around the world in Dixieland!" The exclamation point is certainly not accidental here, because when you look at the song selection, the pairing of some of these tunes would seem unlikely at best. For example, "Adios Senorita" is a reworking of the Spanish song "Cielito Lindo," and the tango-sounding "I Get Ideas" is based on the Carlos Gardel classic "Adios Muchachos." All the songs have been adapted and put together by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who take "New Vienna Woods" from Richard Strauss's "Tales of the Vienna Woods" and turn the old English song "Mother Brown" into "Knees Up, Mother Brown." The concept may sound a little unlikely, but it works really well, mostly due to Billy May's deft arrangement and to Bing and Rosie's charm whenever they were caught in a studio together. Although it was not as commercially successful as Fancy Meeting You Here, this new traveling concept album is, indeed, the perfect companion to its predecessor.

Sings the Great Country Hits was recorded at a time when country music was enjoying a great deal of attention through the subgenre known as the Nashville Sound, a brand of country music that blended elements from country and pop. This was not a new concept, though, since country and pop had never been too far apart and had shared common links since the late 1920s, mainly in the music of singing cowboys such as Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, and Roy Rogers. From the very beginning of his career, Crosby had been a very heterogeneous singer, always willing to attempt almost anything, and country had been no exception: pop versions of country songs had featured prominently during his tenure with Decca, one of the most successful being his 1943 reading of Al Dexter's "Pistol Packin' Mama," accompanied by the Andrews Sisters. While he was not strictly a country singer, he did influence country vocalists such as Tommy Duncan, the long-time singer with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Sings the Great Country Hits is just another instance of Bing's appreciation for and understanding of country music and marks one of the very first times in which he recorded a whole album entirely comprised of country tunes. His voice sounds lower and deeper as he delves into lyrics written by great country songwriters by the likes of Don Gibson ("Oh, Lonesome Me"), Harlan Howard ("Heartaches by the Number"), Willie Nelson ("Hello Walls"), Hank Cochran ("A Little Bitty Tear"), and Bill Anderson ("Still"). The arrangements are very typical of 1960s country fare, and while they may not be as engaging as May's, Bing handles the whole project with great ease and makes it work superbly. It ends up being a highly satisfying venture into Nashville by one of the icons of popular singing.

As these two oft-forgotten works from the later years of his career prove, Bing Crosby's recorded legacy is not only one of the foremost treasures of American music, but it is full of hidden jewels whose outstanding quality needs to be stressed. Although now out of print, this Collectors' Choice release is a good addition to Crosby's discography on CD: it will come as a nice surprise to the casual listener, and it will delight the long-time fan and connoiseur of popular singing.




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